From left, Hillsboro street and safety committee members Patty Day, Adam Wilkin and Brandon Leeth are pictured Friday evening at the former Hillsboro firehouse. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
From left, Hillsboro street and safety committee members Patty Day, Adam Wilkin and Brandon Leeth are pictured Friday evening at the former Hillsboro firehouse. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Hillsboro street and safety committee members Patty Day, Brandon Leeth and Adam Wilkin heard comments regarding food trucks in the city from a standing-room-only crowd Friday evening at the former Hillsboro firehouse. Although food truck owners said they entered the meeting with “shields up,” committee chair Wilkin assured them that the committee wanted to help clarify the ordinance’s confusing wording and make circumstances more welcoming for the vendors.

In fact, safety and service director Brianne Abbott pointed out “the reason why the code was brought up and put into committee might not be what comes out of it,” and Wilkin made similar comments during the meeting Friday.

“We want to be inviting,” Wilkin said. “We want to have as much business in this town as possible while also protecting the businesses already here. I don’t see any reason why everyone can’t win.”

Day said that the city’s “Imagine Hillsboro” comprehensive plan approved by council this month highlights the need for a variety of businesses.

“We do want our city to flourish, as a council, as a city, as citizens,” she said. “We do want to honor the rural and hometown values. We want a robust and welcoming economy. We know that the food trucks and the brick and mortar businesses are all needed.”

The safety and service director also told the food truck vendors that they are “welcome” in the city.

“On behalf of the administration of the city, we are not anti-food truck,” Abbott said. “We have spoken with a lot of you. We want you here. We welcome you here. We’re not anti-business.

“You guys being here today is giving the committee a lot of input on how we can improve that code and how it can just read better.”

Those in attendance included city officials; food truck owners and their families; owners or representatives of local businesses; and other concerned citizens. Some of those addressing council identified themselves during the meeting, and others weighed in informally.

As previously reported, during city council’s June meeting, council member Ann Morris said that she sent council president Tom Eichinger “a letter concerning mobile vendors uptown” and asked him to place the matter into a “committee for discussion.”

The city is hosting several food trucks in the uptown area for the farmers’ market and “Pack the Park” events. Morris’s family owns a restaurant in the uptown district.

In 2016 — after feedback from several business owners, including Morris’s husband — city council passed an amended ordinance that outlined regulations for “mobile food vehicles.” Those in attendance Friday voiced concerns with a lack of clarity on some of the stipulations in the ordinance.

However, the question that came up most frequently during the meeting was “Why are we here?” Both food truck owners and citizens said they were confused as to why the original request was made. Although the committee was vague in responding to the reasons for the meeting, it was pointed out that “the person who has complained” made comments on social media about placing the issue in committee, mostly regarding food trucks’ impact on parking when stationed uptown and how that negatively impacts uptown businesses.

“All we know is we hear rumors — ‘Well, they want to shut it down,’ or ‘You’re taking up public parking space,’” one food truck owner said.

“What’s the issue at hand? Does someone want to change the ordinances, or what’s going on?” another food truck representative asked.

Wilkin answered that Morris “had this placed in the committee to look at the ordinances, as far as they go with the mobile food vendors and food trucks.” In response, he was asked whether that was in order to change the ordinance.

“We’re not trying to take money from people,” one food truck owner said. “We’re not trying to cause traffic jams. If you actually go to the state of Ohio and look up the requirements for a food truck, you’re not allowed to block any emergency passage. You’re not allowed to stop traffic. You’re not allowed to be in the way.

“What extra rules are you guys going to put in place that we don’t already have?”

The food truck owner added that they already work through the city before setting up in locations so they’re “not causing conflict.”

“This is really confusing,” he said. “I think between all of us food truck guys, we’ve all kind of been talking, and we’re like, ‘What are we here for?’ Nobody’s really clarified it. Cool, we went to committee about it. That’s awesome, but why?”

Wilkin said it was “because someone had a problem with the food trucks within the city, really.”

“Brick and mortar businesses brought it to Ann, who is also an owner, to bring it to council,” Day said.

Another Hillsboro business owner said that she wanted to know “what section of the ordinance” in particular was being questioned by the committee. “Are they too close to other restaurants? Is it hurting their business?” she asked.

“That’s what we’re going to review,” Leeth said.

“So there’s no certain part?” she asked. “That’s why we’re getting a lot of negative feedback … I think there’s a feeling they’re getting pushed out.”

“I hope you look at this meeting as a way of making it more inviting to come in this town,” Wilkin said. “We want to figure out ways to get you here, not try to figure out ways so you can’t be here.”

However, a food truck owner pointed out that things are often put in committee “when somebody is caught doing something they’re not supposed to do.”

“That would be like me taking my children and spanking them and being like ‘don’t ever touch the stove,’ and I spank them ahead of time, and they’re like, ‘I didn’t do anything yet,’” he said. “We’re being brought in and we’re being told ‘you can’t set up on the street, you can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ We already read the rules, so why did we waste everyone’s time?”

The ordinance says “Mobile food vehicles, especially sidwalk [sic] carts permitted for that purpose, shall not be so situated as to cause congestion that impedes pedestrian or vehicular traffic, or interfere with city or public use of rights-of-way, including the operations associated with the mobile food vehicle such as signage, customer queues or accessories that restricts access to parking or pedestrian or vehicular travel.”

“Food trucks can’t park on any city spots, unless there’s a special event going on,” Wilkin said. “Other than that, private property’s your best bet.”

One citizen in attendance asked if food trucks could be set up on the “vacant lot” in the uptown district.

“The vacant lots that you’re talking about are 200 feet from another business,” Abbott said. “As far as public property, we allow the Colony space for city events, and then also the space here in front of the firehouse for city events. The way the code reads, we’re technically only allowed to have food trucks on city property for city events.”

Day, who is also the chair of the zoning and annexation committee, pointed out that the city has strict zoning standards for the uptown district, which are not reflected in the current ordinance.

“I mean, we have a committee that even tells you how to sign your business,” she said. “That’s how important the city has taken the zoning of the historic district. Our current ordinance doesn’t cover anything about any of this. Whether it was brought to us because the brick and mortars wanted us to take a look at it or whether it was the food trucks, I think it’s important that we all work together and take a look at this, because it doesn’t cover any of what we’ve currently been doing.”

One food truck owner responded that it “feels like a personal vendetta” against the food trucks, particularly due to the lack of reasoning given for the meeting.

Day said that the response to the meeting has “played out pretty badly on social media, which she said she feels “is not the right outlet for trying to figure out what the city’s doing.”

“It was brought to committee because basically they were concerned, in no uncertain terms, that food trucks were not doing their part like the brick and mortars are,” Wilkin said.

“It would have been cool if somebody else in the committee would have brought it to attention,” the food truck owner said. “Even if the person who did it didn’t agree with it would have gone to someone else and said ‘hey, do you mind putting this in?’ When that person also owns a local business that’s a restaurant, that’s a huge, huge conflict of interest. It makes it a lot more personal.”

“It happened a few years ago with another food truck, and that one got ran out of town,” another citizen said.

Leeth said that social media “can be deceiving.” The food truck owner responded that is important to look at public record, “not just what you see on Facebook.” Another citizen pointed out that “if it wasn’t for social media, probably two-thirds of the people wouldn’t be here right now.”

Over halfway through the meeting, another citizen said that despite discussing parts of the ordinance, they never were told “the initial complaint.” Day said that it was “not just food trucks, but the potential for merchandise and other businesses may be affected by mobile units, but today we’re only talking about food trucks.”

“It was, what can stop them, others, from coming in and setting up service or being merchandise vendors as well?” she said. “It’s not just restaurants. It’s the uptown business association overall has concerns.”

The citizen responded that the city itself has brought food trucks uptown.

“Before this administration, it’s my understanding that it was not approved for food trucks to be in the historic district,” Day said. “They were not given permits to do that is what I was told. This year, the new administration has changed that, and that’s what new.”

“So you guys are just pretty much figuring out a way to let us [operate],” a food truck owner said. “That would have been awesome if we would have known that, but that’s not how any of this has ever been perceived.”

Wilkin responded, “That’s not how it got started, but that may be just how it ends,” which received laughs from some people in the audience.

“The city does post when we have these open meetings and invite you there, but we’re not going to list ‘this is the complaint and who needs to come,’” Day said. “It’s going to say what we’re going to discuss, and we’re welcoming everyone to come. But because there has been such a crucifixion, I will say, on Facebook, only the food truck folks — at least that’s all we’ve heard from so far — have shown up.”

The food truck owner responded that on social media, “the person who has complained has commented.” “Do you know what those complaints were?” he said. “That’s where this confusion comes from.

“When she comments something online, now everyone’s going, ‘OK, we’re hearing it from the horse’s mouth. She’s telling us what she complained about.’ We all come here with that expectation, so our shields are up.”

Leeth said that council members and city administrators can be contacted at any time with concerns. He added that he thought “everybody had a misconception” going in that the committee would be more negative. “We’re more the type that we’re going to work with you,” Leeth said. “To me, that ordinance, it needs work.”

The food truck owner said that he and other vendors have been rehearsing different points to bring up to the committee. “We expected that, and we wanted you to know we’re here to listen and to try to improve this, not try to stop you,” Wilkin said.

“We’re not trying to come off as hostile,” the food truck owner replied. “The interpretation we had gotten from the horse’s mouth is different from what you were intending.”

Throughout the meeting, many of those in attendance gave feedback about different aspects of the current ordinance for mobile food vendors, particularly the following areas.

• The current ordinance stipulates that “Mobile food vehicles shall not open for business within 200 feet of an established restaurant or similar food service provider.”

One citizen in attendance said he felt that “basically eliminates prime locations for downtown Hillsboro.” He also asked what constitutes a “similar food service provider.”

“I think that includes just the brick and mortar stores that are pretty much stationary and year-round,” Wilkin said.

Abbott added the ordinance doesn’t give “enough clarification in the code” for the city to enforce.

Another citizen asked if the 200-foot rule still applies if a food truck is set up in a private lot, even if it is within 200 feet of a restaurant. “How can they enforce that on private property?” he asked. A different individual in attendance said, “if I own a restaurant, I cannot have a food truck sitting in my parking lot?”

WIlkin said the ordinance wording is “confusing.” Abbott said “the way it reads,” she believed that this was correct, that even privately owned restaurants could not host food trucks.

“The way you reads, you read it right, but that’s something we might be able to fix,” Wilkin said.

Another business owner said that she hoped the rule would be amended. “We just bought a property in town that we’re going to turn into a restaurant, and I want to be able to have food trucks in there if I want to,” she said. “I don’t think that I should be restricted on my private property.”

Another business owner said that when food trucks set up in her parking lot, the two businesses end up “helping each other” attract customers.

• The ordinance says that “Each applicant shall pay a fee of $200, which fee shall be paid at the time the application is submitted. Applicants who are agents for charitable, religious or educational organizations that meet the definition thereof as contained in R.C. § 2915.01(H), (I) or (J), or have duly registered with the State of Ohio under the provisions of R.C. Chapter 1716, shall be required to obtain a license, but shall be exempt from the payment of any fee as required hereunder.”

One resident said he felt that the $200 fee was “excessive” and asked why it was assessed. “Are you not generating tax revenue?” he asked.

“There’s no sales tax on food that’s takeout or carryout,” Wilkin said. “The $200 fee, from the information I have, is just a way for the city to get some money for when they want to come to town and set up.”

One food truck owner said that the ordinance does not specify the time frame for the $200 fee. Another vendor said that the city’s paperwork indicates that the fee is monthly, but city officials told them it’s a yearly fee.

“I’ve read through the legislation too, and it is difficult to read, to say the least,” Wilkin said. “As far as we understand it, and we’ve done research on this, is the 30-day fee is for solicitors and peddlers. The $200 fee is for food trucks. It’s not defined in there for how long the fee is good for.”

A separate food truck owner said that the fee is “absolutely not unreasonable, but I would like it to be specified to a calendar year.”

“A $200 fee monthly — you cannot compare apples and oranges with brick and mortar vs. food truck,” she said. “We make our money for a very limited, short period of time. You really cannot compare that to a brick and mortar when they’re talking about fees. I can’t even begin to tell you how much we pay, not just for licensing, insurance, vehicle insurance, trailer insurance, food insurance, liability insurance.”

Another business owner said that for her business, she registers and pays a fee before working in “many cities.” She said that she believed the fee was fair.

“It’s just a way tor regulate quality, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with paying a yearly fee,” she said. “I think $200 for a yearly fee is a thousand-percent reasonable. I don’t think it’s reasonable to say per event, or maybe biannually, or whatnot.”

A food truck owner agreed, saying they were “willing to do that” and “totally understood.” “I don’t want anyone to think that we were like ‘$200, how dare they,’” she said.

Another citizen asked if the $200 fee was still assessed on food trucks visiting for city events.

“The only ones that don’t get charged, from my understanding, is like religious organizations, schools, stuff like that,” Day said.

On the other hand, a citizen said that they didn’t think the $200 application fee should be assessed if a truck is set up on a private property. “Well, if it’s within the city limits, as far as I understand, we can charge the $200,” Wilkin said.

Another representative of a city business said she wrote a letter to council arguing that the $200 fee is “ridiculous.”

“I have contacted Fayette County, and they don’t have a fee,” she said. “Clinton County is a $25 fee for five consecutive days, if you want to set up. Fayette County, they only charge if you’re using their electricity.”

She added that if food truck owners are successful in Hillsboro, it may ultimately lead to them buying or leasing a brick and mortar location within the city.

Day, who said she has been researching food truck ordinances in other cities, said “some cities are actually having you show your revenues. Instead of having a $200 cost, they will maybe give you a $50 application fee by the city, and then you, on a monthly basis, have to turn in your revenues, and you’re taxed on that.”

The committee fielded a number of other questions and comments from the audience, including the following:

• Whether city restaurants had given their thoughts on the ordinance for food trucks passed in 2016. Wilkin said, “Not that I’m aware of.” (Editor’s note: During then-finance committee meetings in 2016, several owners of restaurants and other businesses did make comments to council members about mobile vendors.)

• Whether Morris was “involved in any of the decisions” on the current ordinance. Wilkin said that Morris had abstained from voting on the ordinance.

“That’s different than the decision-making process,” a resident said.

Wilkin said that Morris was not on the committee and that she “does have a right to an opinion.”

Later in the meeting, a business owner asked if Morris would abstain from voting on the revised ordinance. Day and Wilkin said that “she will not be voting.”

• One citizen argued that uptown businesses that have a drive-thru in public alleys “create a traffic hazard.” Several people began to talk about it, but Wilkin asked to stick the food truck topic. He told the crowd the drive-thru issue “could be put into another committee to discuss.”

• Opening up the fairgrounds as a location for a group of the vendors to set up. “Maybe on down the road, there’s something we could do to allow you guys to get into a group somewhere anytime you want,” Wilkin said. “That’s something we could definitely put on the table.”

• Day said that she also spoke to the Highland County Health Department to learn about their permit process.

”There’s a significant difference in whether you’re a mobile unit or a brick and mortar and what you have to pay for your permit,” Day said. “I think that all of these things need to be looked at, and we need the input from the health department. The people that oversee getting the permit to begin with need to be involved. I would like to invite them to the table as well.”

One citizen asked if all food trucks were required to have a health permit. Day said they did, and one of the food truck owners said “health and food permits are for the state of Ohio.”

It was also asked whether the food trucks had liability insurance. The food truck owners said they did. Day said “the permit actually identifies that you have to be responsible for any injuries,” but “it doesn’t cover that in the ordinance.”

• Day also suggested comparing the historic districts of other Ohio towns and cities to see their regulations for food trucks.

“I’m not saying that we’re going to follow that plan, but I’m saying it at least opens up a discussion of how we can all work together,” Day said.

In a different part of the meeting, one food truck owner said “there are certain cities and towns that have built these ordinances for food trucks, and they’ve pushed us out.” For example, she said, she can’t set up in one nearby city because “the city won’t allow me because they don’t like my tent.”

“It’s just that silly,” she said. “When you do get into these and you try to resolve these questions, the language has to be workable, I guess, for everybody, and take into consideration again the mobile food service is very different from brick and mortar.”

• One of the food truck owners said that he owns another mobile business and asked about the ordinance’s impact on that.

“This is also about just any vendor business that’s mobile, right?” he asked.

Day said “that’s probably going to be a part of all this eventually,” even though Friday night’s meeting only focused on the food trucks.

• The committee was asked what steps will be taken moving forward. The committee told them that council meetings are open to the public on the second Monday of each month (although they have been held via Zoom instead of in-person due to the pandemic). Leeth also explained the process of revising the ordinance to the crowd.

“We can all work together,” Leeth said. “What can we do to make this ordinance read better, work better, for the food truck vendors? It will stay in our committee, and we’re going to review the ordinance. Then, what we do is we always have a three-reading rule. That gives the public 90 days to comment. If you’ve got a problem with this section, bring it up, call us.

“Obviously we don’t live in a perfect world and we can’t please everyone, but what we can do is we can work together and come up with something that’s better than what we’ve got now.”

Wilkin said that the committee invites “communication from all the food trucks” before they hold their next meeting. Leeth proposed that representatives from the food trucks put suggestions and/or requests for amendments to the ordinance in writing. Council clerk Kimberly Newman invited the food truck owners to send their comments to knewman@hillsboroohio.net.

“We want to read them all,” Leeth said. “That’s the way we’re going to get through this. We wrote our notes down tonight, but we want to make sure we fine-tune this thing so when we bring it to a council meeting, it’s going to be right.”

“We can’t get it right unless we hear from the people involved,” Wilkin added.

All three committee members encouraged those in attendance to weigh in throughout the next three months or more as they work to amend the ordinance. “This thing probably won’t get resolved for quite a while, but we’ll be working on it,” Leeth told them.

He added that if the food truck owners wanted to meet together and come up with a combined list of suggestions, they could do that as well.

“This will be in committee, and I promise you we’ll stay on top of it,” Wilkin said.

In response, the food truck owners and others in attendance thanked the committee for being willing to listen to them throughout the meeting. One food truck owner also thanked the other members of the committee for attending the meeting. “It really means a lot to us,” she said.